Saturday, August 15, 2015

Second language

In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes offered an original and astute defense of Petrine authorship against the common charge that its Greek is too refined for a Palestinian Jewish fisherman. 

I recently ran across two examples that are analogous to her argument. There's a Chinese Christian blogger who's currently a student at an American seminary. 

Normally he writes in a very educated English style. As a rule, his English style is more complex and erudite than many native English speakers. 

I chalk that up to the fact that his English is heavily influenced by the kind of reading he does. Reading English-speaking theologians and Bible scholars. Academic prose. 

Recently, however, I read two essays by him that contained a number of grammatical errors. That made me suspect that maybe his command of English is not as good as I supposed. Perhaps his usual routine is to write a draft, then have someone smooth out the grammatical infelicities. But on this occasion, for whatever reason, he didn't have that assistance. 

In a related example, I was reading a Bayesian probability theorist (Tim Hendrix) commenting on atheist Richard Carrier. English is not Hendrix's native language. On the one hand, his comments contained some very technical vocabulary. On the other hand, they contained conspicuous grammatical errors (usually involving number agreement). 

In both cases we have writers for whom English is a second language. Their vocabulary is more sophisticated than many native English speakers. Yet they commit syntactical blunders that a native English speaker would not. 


  1. I've known people who can switch back and forth between a more refined and sophisticated English and an English that's far more idiomatic and which even sounds grammatically mistaken to my American English ears. I suppose it's a sort of bilingualism but in different forms of English. I'm referring to people who speak Black English (Ebonics), Pidgin, Singlish, Taglish, and so on.

    Some of these people are quite intelligent (e.g. grad students, engineers, med students). Some have written and even published academic papers. Yet (1) sometimes their Singlish or Taglish for example does seep through into their formal papers, and (2) their informal writings are often full of errors in grammar and spelling, at least from my American English perspective.

  2. Wow I'm thinking of my own writing...dead give away.

  3. This is a great observation. I know that professional writers continue to refine their writing over the course of their careers. It's not that their writing becomes more complex, but that their mastery is a matter of elegance: better communication with a more readable (simpler) prose. John's writing, for example, is very readable and efficient. Paul's writing reflects his craft as a preacher. That is, he writes like he speaks. I know people who are functionally fluent in more than one language, but still need a translator when they speak publicly in their non-native language. The reason is that public speaking is functionally different than conversational speech. I imagine this was the case for Peter who used Mark as his translator. When you are thinking in one language and translating into the speech patterns of a different language, you need to have enough mastery of the target language to reformulate the syntax into something digestible to your hearers/readers. I don't know Galilean Aramaic of the time of Christ, and I haven't studied anyone's research on this, but I suspect that the complexities in Peter's Greek were an attempt to write Greek using the same linguistic patterns he was thinking in Aramaic.